The Top Ten Songs of 2012:
It seems that, as music becomes easier and easier to consume for free and completely at demand, fans’ taste grow far more diverse as they sample different genres. This is one of the excellent developments brought about by the music-is-free culture (for some downsides, check out my essay “The Music Omnivore’s Dilemma”). I think most would agree that 2012 was a fairly strong year for music. I had to expand my list to twenty songs to include some of the more diverse stuff that made an impression on me this year. Below you’ll find a sample platter of hip-hop, folk, black metal, indie-rock, Christmas music (!), R&B and psychedelia, to name a few.
Youtube clips of the top ten songs are below. Click here for a YouTube playlist of the full list, including runners up and honorary mention.
El-P – “Tougher Colder Killer” from Cancer 4 Cure
Bleak, intoxicating hip-hop with devastating verses from El and Killer Mike.
The Tallest Man on Earth – “1904” from There’s No Leaving Now
Sweden’s reedy voiced, fleet fingered folky pens one of his catchiest tunes.
TNGHT – “Higher Ground” from TNGHT
Instrumental hip hop duo drop the most slamming beat of the year.
Ty Segall Band – “Oh Mary” from Slaughterhouse
A minute and a half of pure garage punk fury.
Jessie Ware – “Night Light” from Devotion
Smoothest, sexiest R&B single since Sade was heating up VH1.
The Antlers – “Crest” from Undersea
Evocative noir horns turn out to be a perfect match for Antlers’ lead singer Peter Silberman’s soaring voice. The band’s first song I’d call both visceral and sexy.
High on Fire – “Fertile Green” from De Vermis Mysteriis
High on Fire’s latest record recaptures the grungy, whiskey soaked sound of their earlier work and “Fertile Green” is the best example. The song lurches forward like a drunken boxer and proves that Matt Pike is one of metal’s best guitarists.
Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built” from Celebration Rock
It’s ironic that a song from an album that Japandroids themselves have admitted almost didn’t get made might just might be the song that makes their music immortal.
Screaming Females – “Doom 84” from Ugly
Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females is not only a dazzling guitarist, but a seeming scholar of guitar solo and riff history. “Doom 84” is like a Wild Flag, Dinosaur Jr. and Queens of the Stone Age song all rolled into one.
Swans – “The Seer Returns” from The Seer
For such a bleak album, there are some tunes on The Seer, especially “The Seer Returns,” that are almost jaunty in their apocalyptic way. Sounding a bit like a Tom Waits tune laid atop a maddening minimalist string loop, the song is as disturbing as it is catchy.
The Top Tens Songs of 2012:
10. Sufjan Stevens – “Christmas Unicorn” from Silver & Gold
Known for stretching his boundless creativity in bizarre directions (a “cinematic suite” inspired by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an avant hip-hop record with Son Lux and Serengeti), Sufjan Stevens’ most vexing musical outlet has got to be his mountainous volumes of Christmas music. Coming at the very end of Silver & Gold, a compilation that’s at turns very traditional and off-puttingly experimental, “Christmas Unicorn” starts as a hilariously ironic takedown of holiday consumer culture (lyrics from the eponymous unicorn’s point of view: “I’m hysterically American, I’ve got a credit card on my wrist” and “I’m a frantic shopper and a brave pill popper”). The second half of the song’s epic 13 minutes is a frantic, brilliantly arranged dance breakdown that would be home on Stevens’ masterpiece The Age of Adz. I’m also fairly certain it’s the only Christmas song in history that ends with a gleeful cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
9. Tame Impala – “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” from Lonerism
For a band so often accused of shamelessly evoking early 70s psychedelia a la The Beatles and Pink Floyd, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is a downright ballsy title for a single. But with lead singer Kevin Parker practically channeling John Lennon, Tame Impala beats back doubters with one of the purest, most melodic ballads of the year. While the soaring major keys “oohs” and “aahs” practically beg for lava lamps and shag carpeting, the underlying texture of the song, with its billowing electronic gurgles and frontloaded drumming, belong squarely in the modern era. Though it feels like Tame Impala only looks backwards at times, here they prove they can achieve timelessness.
8. Bat for Lashes – “Laura” from The Haunted Man
On Natasha Khan’s previous record as Bat For Lashes, the astonishing semi-concept album Two Suns, the English singer-songwriter creatively exploded in all directions – from the fantasy infused opener “Glass” to the Karate Kid referencing dance hit “Daniel” to the schizophrenic catharsis of “Siren Song.” Khan’s latest, The Haunted Man, is less a sonic than thematic departure — pulsing disco anthems and Kate Bush inspired art pop abound, much like Two Suns. But lyrically and vocally, Khan lays herself bare, especially on album highlight “Laura.” A melancholy love letter to an aging performer, Khan’s soaring voice, aided by a simple piano and horn arrangement, holds you rapt during the plaintive verses and sends shivers shooting down your spine in the chorus when she pleads against the dying of the light, “ooh Laura, you’re more than a superstar.”
7. Future of the Left – “Camp Cappuccino” from The Plot Against Common Sense
I don’t know what Future of the Left lead singer Andy Falkous has against coffee, but his endless bile toward the beverage and the witless white-collar culture he’s associated it with yields some of the most hilariously cutting lyrics of his career in “Camp Cappuccino.” Riding a monstrously catchy, evil surf-rock vibe provided by his retooled, weightier rhythm section, Falkous spits lyrics that toe the line between idiotic and brilliantly satiric while painting a highly specific picture of clueless, team-building middle men on a coffee retreat. There are so many great couplets here I’m tempted to transpose the entire song, but here’s some particular favorites: “Camp Cappuccino, in 1973, they had better landslides, I still remember digging you free!” and “The middle class… took the petty cash… for the waiting staff… to blow, at Camp Cappuccino.” A worthy successor to Monty Python’s immortal sketch “Upper-Class Twit of the Year,” “Camp Cappuccino” shows that Future of the Left can combine muscular punk rock and blistering sarcasm like no other band out there.
6. Jens Lekman – “The End of The World is Bigger than Love” from I Know What Love Isn’t
At his best, impish Swedish singer/songwriter Jens Lekman combines heartbroken platitudes with gloriously catchy melodies and rewardingly witty wordplay. If his newest, I Know What Love Isn’t, leans heavier on the heartache than his best work, the record has strong highlights, especially “The End of the World is Bigger Than Love.” Starting with some navel gazing regarding the dissolution of a relationship, then stretching to a charming vignette set during Obama’s 2008 election victory, and finishing with the best list of apocalyptic signifiers since R.E.M. (my favorite, “the Flatbush Avenue Target and it’s pharmacy department”), the song sweetly reminds us that our own heartache doesn’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things and, therefore, should be embraced with wistful melancholy instead of depression.
5. Gotye – “Somebody That I Used to Know” from Making Mirrors
Let’s forget for a minute the endless radio play, the insufferable dance remixes and the karaoke rendition peddled on Glee. Try to remember the first time you heard “Somebody That I Used to Know.” That oddly clipped, world music inflected first verse drawing the ear in. Then Gotye belting out “but you didn’t have to cut me off” to his now-vanished ex-girlfriend, sounding uncannily like a young Peter Gabriel. And then, just as we are completely on the protagonist’s side, his ex, sung forcefully by Kimbra, completely changes the dynamic, switching from a lament to a bitter “he-said she-said.” The powerful vocal performances elevate the simple but effective lyrics – anyone who has ever been through a break-up knows that feeling of someone who was once so close becoming a distant memory. So, yes, its played out and therefore not cool, but there’s something to be said for a song this unusual breaking through to the mainstream – maybe it is just really, really good.
4. Grimes – “Oblivion” from Visions
It seems that every couple of years, the indie-rock bloggerati anoint a new pretty young female pop sensation, if only as an intellectual cover to admitting that they really, really have a crush on her. Following in the footsteps of Lykki Li and Robyn is Canadian songstress and artist Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes. Boucher both plays up and subverts stereotypes on her weirdly dark, futuristic glitch-pop – her vocals are invariably adorable but her lyrics are often dark; her arrangements are insistently catchy yet filled with discordant, even bizarre juxtapositions. All of the elements congeal perfectly on “Oblivion,” a song with an instantly memorable earworm of a chorus that leads with the lyrics “Another walk about after dark, it’s my point of view, if someone could break your neck, coming up behind you and you’d never have a clue.” The fact that such gothic musings, and a chorus that combines cooing “aaahs” with the lyrics “see you on a dark night,” have melted so many hearts is a testament to Boucher’s songwriting chops and subversive attitude.
3. Grizzly Bear – “Sun in Your Eyes” from Shields
Grizzly Bear took a bit of a break after their commercial and critical breakthrough Veckatimest – I can only imagine how intimidating it must be to follow up a record as universally regarded by music nerds that also spawned a single as inescapable as the bubbly “Two Weeks.” But with Sheilds, Grizzly Bear found a way to combine their considerable strengths – the winding, gauzy arrangements of Yellow House and the pop sheen of Veckatimest. Album closer, the seven-minute “Sun in Your Eyes,” is a spiritual cousin to Yellow House’s “Colorado” but with considerably more muscle and directness. Daniel Rossen pilots the song’s first half, a pocket symphony with thundering choruses aided by the rhythm section of Chris Bear and Chris Taylor. Then the song boldly pauses around the five minute mark before exploding into a two minute coda anchored by Ed Droste’s husky baritone, taking the record out on a stratospheric note that leaves you wondering, yet again, how on Earth these guys can top themselves next time.
2. Alcest – “Faiseurs de Mondes” from Les Voyages de L’åme
In its way, black metal is a genre as resistant to change as country music or blues – any deviation from the template of howled vocals and minor key thrashing are often looked upon with suspicion, even anger, by ardent fans. But some bands, like Deafheaven (incorporating shoe gaze), Blut Aus Nord (electronica) and Agalloch (folk), have cracked some fissures in the genre’s immovable facade. Alcest, a French one-man black metal project, has created something so divergent from the norm I hesitate to even include it in the genre. That songwriter Neige has been able to craft something as soaring and beautiful out of the often off-putting elements of black metal is truly striking. The song’s folk inflected opening wouldn’t be out of place on an Agalloch record, but the bridge goes quiet with a plaintive upper register vocal, disarming in its beautiful clarity. The climax, using blast beats (drumming so fast that it starts to feel slow) and hyper speed rhythm guitar, takes the form of a post-rock epic. As the snare hits come back on the downbeat in the song’s last cycle, the music seems to move at two different speeds and in effect break loose from time, yielding something new and exciting in the process.
1. Cloud Nothings – “Wasted Days” from Attack on Memory
It’s no secret that the Great Recession has put shackles on the dreams and desires of young people in America – it took 21-year-old Dylan Baldi, whose band Cloud Nothings reinvented itself with the staggering, brilliant Attack on Memory, to take these calcified feelings of aimlessness and helplessness and channel them into a rip-snorting motherfucker of a rock and roll song that sums up and explodes ennui with the climactic refrain “I thought I would be more than this.” Coming right out of the gate with punk rock energy and the lyrics “I know my life’s not going to change and I’ll live through all these wasted days,” the Cleveland-bred Baldi (whose city knows a thing or two about post-industrial decay) starts building the song’s ascending anger one couplet at a time. But then in the middle, the band pauses and waits on TJ Duke’s simple one note bass line. Drummer Jayson Gerycz and guitarist Joe Boyer add improvisatory tension, building a thicket of sound atop the insistent groove. Baldi’s voice, digitally looped and faded in and out, acts as a far off light in an increasingly chaotic storm. The five-minute, tempo-pushing jam elevates your heart rate until the tension is practically unbearable before ebbing back into the bass groove. And then, over and over, shouting (“I thought I would be more than this”) til his larynx shreds in protest, Baldi and company ramp “Wasted Days” into the ultimate, righteous “fuck you” to a future that, at times, seems hopelessly empty.